The Beginner's Guide to Human Geography Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Beginner's Guide to Human Geography

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Contrary to popular belief, geography is much more than just globes, maps and a handy source of general knowledge while playing Trivial Pursuit. Geography can be loosely divided into two main disciplines: physical and human. Physical geography is arguably more scientific in nature, concerning itself with the environment, and how it functions. This can include how rivers 'work', the measurement of volcanic activity, or the study of weather patterns.

Human geography is far more diverse, complex and far-reaching than physical geography. It includes, for example, the placement of retail outlets in a particular area, addressing famine, or the impact of the Olympics upon the local population. The focus of human geography is on people, although not in the same manner as sociology, which is more precisely bound up with human interaction. Human geography tries to make the practical function of society as efficient as possible.

Human geography can be sub-divided loosely into two categories: development and population.


Human development is defined by the United Nations as:

...about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.

This suggests that progress is no longer simply about economic measurement, but rather encompasses social, economic and environmental factors. The current focus in this field is on 'sustainable development'. Sustainable development was first mentioned in the Brundtland Commission of 1987, and defined as '...development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. The main obstacle to realising this is that people generally prefer to see short-term solutions, rather than longer-term options that extend beyond their own lives, or indeed lifetimes.


Population is about striking a balance between resources and people. It takes a number of viewpoints as diverse as the overall 'point' of the population in question, and what they might require in terms of utilities or Parliamentary representation, to the issues of service providers, whose problems may be more specific and immersed in the pressures of the market economy - for example, the profitable placement of shops and services.

This has enormous global significance because there is a limited amount of resources, being called upon to support largely unchecked population growth. One of the first people to concern themselves with this problem was pioneering socio-economist Thomas Malthus, in the 18th Century. Malthus presented the hypothesis that unrestricted population growth would always exceed growth in resources. This is because the population grows geometrically (ie, 2, 4, 8, 16) but resources, he supposed, grow arithmetically (ie, 1, 2, 3, 4). Malthus concluded that there was a limit to the population, and when this was reached, limiting factors, such as wars and famines would stabilise it.

Population geography extends beyond this, however, to the study of demography itself. Demography examines how population is structured and distributed, and considers factors such as age, gender and wealth. This information can be used by many different parties: supermarkets, for example, use data from reward cards to target local advertising campaigns. The Post Office use similar data to know which flyers to put through your door. This is probably the most valuable data for industry in a market economy, but this method of information gathering can also be useful to determine links between deprivation and health, or to identify impoverished areas.


For the purposes of this entry, globalisation is necessarily dealt with rather briefly.

Globalisation has been described as 'the most powerful trend of our time'1. Ruud Lubbers, a Dutch academic, defines globalisation as 'a process in which geographic distance becomes a factor of diminishing importance'. It permeates all levels, including economics, culture, politics and societies, and brings them closer together. It is not, however, a recent phenomenon. Globalisation has been occurring for centuries: for example, when Walter Raleigh brought back potatoes from the New World, he was practising globalisation.

Economically, globalisation can be seen as the increasing interaction of national economic systems. This has gathered pace in the past century with the rise of TNC's2, who are now based in more than one country and are thus less affected by the individual economies of the countries they inhabit. This has reached such an extent that TNC's now account for 50% of the top 100 economies of the world - including national economies. There is an obvious dilemma that arises when companies have a larger economy than some less developed countries, but, having no electorate to placate, are not nearly as accountable for their actions3.

This has also had cultural and social implications. With the spread of TNC's has been the spread of corresponding values. This has been criticised as a monoculture, or 'McDonaldisation'. This frequently manifests itself in the somewhat distressing spectacle of impoverished children earning money from scavenging in rubbish, to buy food from McDonald's rather than locally grown produce which may be better for them, and would also stimulate a local economy.

Urban/Rural Landscapes

Urban areas have been on the increase since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, the urban population is growing at four times the rate of the rural population4. From 1990 to 2025, it has been predicted that the urban population will double to almost five billion: 90% of which will live in developing countries. This has led to the creation of 'megacities' (defined as cities with at least eight million inhabitants). In 1950, there were only two megacities in the world London and New York. This had risen to 23 in 1995, and is predicted to be 36 in 2015: 23 of which are expected to be in Asia. At current pace and scale, over 60 million people are added to urban environments each year.

This presents great challenges to the international community. Food is an increasingly valuable commodity, as more and more is consumed in the developed world, at the expense of the developing world where populations are increasing at a much faster rate. There is also the uncomfortable paradox that food is grown in rural areas, and if these areas are declining, how is the world to support a growing population?

Many development agencies and governmental organisations are now striving to conserve rural areas, and raise standards of living in recognised areas of poverty and deprivation. It would appear that the importance of conserving a degree of equilibrium between rural and urban areas is now being recognised.

This is also important within urban areas. Many urban areas are undergoing some sort of decline: whether it be in inner cities in more developed countries, or in slum districts in the outskirts. This presents a problem, but a solution of sorts can be arrived at by regenerating derelict urban areas: examples of this include Canary Wharf in London and parts of Liverpool's former dockyards. However, this can only occur if the resources are available: which in many places they aren't. This usually means that many places can only spiral ever-further into decline.

The common thread running through the whole subject of human geography is the reconciliation of differences between the landscape, and the people who inhabit it. Some have described human geography as the way forward in terms of governing the world. This may or may not be so: however, it certainly obliges us to face some uncomfortable home truths. How we subsequently choose to respond to them remains to be seen.

1Global Arcade.2Trans-national Companies/Corporations, previously known as Multi-national Companies.3Shareholders are a negligible electorate, as they are primarily concerned with maximising return on investments.4United Nations Population Division, World Urbanisation Prospects: The 1996 Revision, Annex Tables.

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