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Standards are designed to be guidelines for classroom and field instruction – to define the required knowledge of a geographically literate society and the basic concepts that should be taught to students. Geography for Life unfortunately lacks an unbiased and politically neutral discussion of many issues; instead, the standards often emphasize a particular activist viewpoint.











In 1994 the Geography Education Standards Project (GESP) released a set of voluntary national standards called Geography for Life. GESP was a consortium of four organizations: American Geographical Society (AGS), Association of American Geographers (AAG), National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and National Geographic Society (NGS). Geography for Life listed six “essential elements” (or concepts) with a total of 18 standards.

A revision of the original document was released in 2012 by the Geography Education National Implementation Program (GENIP), a consortium of the same four organizations. The title Geography for Life was retained. Funding for the revision was provided by GENIP and NGS. According to GENIP: “The goal of the National Geography Standards is to enable students to become geographically informed through knowledge and mastery of three things: (1) factual knowledge; (2) mental maps and tools; (3) and ways of thinking.”

The writers correctly state that students must first develop a strong knowledge base: “geography is built on a basis of factual knowledge; we must know what is located where and the characteristics of places and environments. This knowledge is a prerequisite. Without rich mental maps of the world, we cannot put people and places into their human and environmental concepts.”

With this knowledge base, the standards add “the concepts that allow the geographically informed person to understand the context of world events, i.e., why and how an event occurs where it does.” Finally, “knowledge and concepts are brought together by the tools and ways of thinking characteristic of geography.”

The writers conclude: “The geographically informed person is prepared to meet the challenges of understanding what is happening in the world, why it is happening in a particular locale, how these things might change in the future, and how to make geographically informed and reasoned decisions.”

One very nice feature of Geography for Life is an extensive Glossary, which gives this definition for geography: “the study of the physical and human systems across Earth’s surface.” Physical geography deals with natural features of the Earth (landforms, soil, water, climate, et al.) and human geography deals with ways mankind views, manages, influences, and modifies the Earth’s surface. A third general area is geographical techniques, which includes basic cartography and map-making principles, air photo interpretation, satellite remote sensing, and geographic information systems. Traditionally these three are the main themes in a set of geography standards.

In more recent times a fourth field has emerged, environmental geography, which is a hybrid of all three facets of geography. This field studies the interactions between man and the environment. Geography for Life reflects a modern interpretation of geography, and the main themes often seem to be environmentalism and politics. Thus a major objective (perhaps the major objective) of these standards is to develop impressionable students into environmental activists, thereby promoting a political agenda that includes globalism, “green” technology, and sustainability. In pursuing this course, Geography for Life fails to maintain neutrality and objectivity.

Standards are designed to be guidelines for classroom and field instruction – to define the required knowledge of a geographically literate society and the basic concepts that should be taught to students. Geography for Life unfortunately lacks an unbiased and politically neutral discussion of many issues; instead, the standards often emphasize a particular activist viewpoint.

Good instruction would expose students to multiple completing viewpoints, especially with the controversial topics that geography, as a discipline, often tackles. This serves two purposes: (1) that a student truly understands what he or she believes by knowing the counter arguments and (2) that each student realizes that not every problem has an answer that is “right” while all others are “wrong.” Students taught from Geography for Life may be able to recite the “party line” answer to a particular question, but they likely will not be able to defend their answers or state opposing positions.

The social sciences almost always involve concepts that are interpreted according to beliefs and worldviews. When one goes beyond simple recitation of facts, different viewpoints abound. While this does not always involve controversy, sometimes it does. Geography, like other social sciences, can be presented in a biased manner. Thus, the broad concept of geographical standards must be diligent to remain apart from political and social biases. Unfortunately, many standards writers and education officials maintain a Progressive “liberal” viewpoint that sometimes shuns opposing views. In this light Geography for Life engages far too often in viewpoint discrimination.

The 18 standards are organized under six Essential Elements: (1) The World in Spatial Terms, (2) Places and Regions, (3) Physical Systems, (4) Human Systems, (5) Environment and Society, and (6) The Uses of Geography.

An Essential Element “is an idea that is central and necessary to an understanding of geography: it is a precise way of looking at the world.” Each Element contains three or four themes (or “standards”), which are knowledge and performance statements describing what a student should know and be able to do as a result of instruction. The final component is a set of student activities that might be carried out on a particular topic.

Each standard contains learning objectives to be completed by the end of grades 4, 8 and 12. We will consider each of the 18 standards individually.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT 1: The World in Spatial Terms

This element contains three standards designed to describe the spatial patterns that are found on the Earth’s surface and explain why they are located where they are.

Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information.

*This standard follows the geography area of Geographical Techniques. Geographic representations include maps, globes, graphs, diagrams, and aerial and satellite images. Instruction focuses on the use of these tools to find particular information; for example, terrain features (landforms), landmarks, road/bridge networks, and population/demographics. The early grades focus on local geography (the school, neighborhood, and community), while later grades branch out to national and global features.

Standard 2: How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context.

*A “mental map” is defined as “an individual’s internalized representation of aspects of Earth’s surface.” In this section students develop spatial information about people, places, and environments.
*Students “identify from memory and explain the locations, characteristics, patterns and relationships of places and regions to answer geographic questions.” It is good that memorization has not gone out of style in geography (as it has in some other academic fields). The writers appreciate the need for a strong memorized knowledge base.

*In this section students learn, for example, about “the locations of major community landmarks or boundaries,” “state political boundaries and major physical features,” “major climate and vegetation regions of the United States,” “the locations of major cities,” “major transportation networks and population centers,” “the pattern of world population,” “major world deserts and mountain ranges,” and “the map of North America.”

*This standard requires students to have a working knowledge of geography – relying not just on maps or a globe to locate places but having a “mental image” of the world. Thus, a student is taught to have a detailed knowledge of the spatial context of the Earth.

Standard 3: How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface.

*This section concerns arrangements of people, places, and environments, i.e., “where things are in relation to other things.” Students consider such topics as human settlement and migration patterns, urban models, vegetation zones, use of key features (lakes, rivers, mountains, forests, valleys, et al.), land use patterns, and transportation networks.

*This standard requires the student to be able to analyze spatial information and explain where and why activities are located on the Earth’s surface. Spatial patterns are not random, and the student needs to understand why they exist.

*As a general note on Standards 2 and 3, the performance statements are very not specific as to what students are expected to learn. On one hand, it might be good to identify certain basic information that all students should know; for example: the locations of states on a U.S. map and major countries on a world map, the state capitals, major U.S. and international cities, and major topographical features in the U.S. and the world (mountain ranges, valleys, plains, deserts, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, et al.). On the other hand, specifics regarding local and regional features should be added in local/state implementation. This requires that the local/state implementation be proactive to tailor the standards to their own needs and that this implementation is not biased due to influence by special interests.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT 2: Places and Regions

This element contains three standards that define places and regions as an integral component of geographical knowledge and combines these definitions in both the context of physical and human geography.

Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.

*Places are “locations having distinctive features that give them meaning and character that differs from other locations. Therefore, places are human creations, and people’s lives are grounded in particular places.” Students learn that places have physical characteristics (such as landforms, climate, and hydrology) and human characteristics (such as language, religion, culture, politics, and economy). Students study “how these characteristics vary from place to place and change over time” (due, for example, to changes in landforms, climate, political situations, or conflicts/wars).

*Some topics in this section deal with the history, politics, and cultures in different regions of the world. For example, suggested subjects include regional stereotypes, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in cities, cultural characteristics of different places, changes due to battles/wars, and effects of nationalistic movements. These are presented in a neutral and objective manner.

Standard 5: That people create regions to interpret Earth’s complexity.

*Regions are “human creations used to manage and interpret the complexity of Earth’s surface. They help us understand and organize the arrangements of people, places, and environments.”

*Students learn about three types of regions: (1) a formal region that is characterized by a common human characteristic (e.g., language, religion, culture, or nationality), (2) a functional region organized around a focal point (e.g., a transportation, communications, trade, or industrial center), and (3) a perceptual region based on human feelings or attitudes.

*A couple of performance statements delve into the history and politics of particular regions, and the coverage is neutral and objective (e.g., movements of ethnic groups, changing political boundaries, effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and effects of colonization in Africa).

*One performance statement asks students to “explain some of the results expected from climate change models on the physical characteristics of selected world regions.” If this leads to a nonpartisan discussion, the standard could serve a useful purpose. But there is no indication that an objective discussion is required. In fact, the implication seems to be that the discussion should stress hypothetical negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change is a legitimate subject, but it must be presented objectively with different perspectives being represented.

Standard 6: How culture and experience influence people’s perceptions of places and regions.

*This section considers how we develop personal perceptions about different places like communities and national or world regions. The discussion includes different worldviews, which are affected by “ideology, race, ethnicity, language, gender, age, religion, history, politics, social class, and economic status.” The standards call on students to “reflect on their own perceptions of places and regions, thereby avoiding the dangers of egocentric and ethnocentric stereotyping of the worlds of others.” This is refreshing in that it goes beyond the “learn and regurgitate” methods that are too easily implemented; it requires students to make their own perceptions and to explain why these perceptions exist.

*The basic purpose of this standard seems to be to help students become sensitive to different cultural views around the world. This objective is quite appropriate, and cultural stereotypes should be avoided. However, this standard could be interpreted in a multicultural setting; that is, viewing all cultures in the world with equal respect, validity, and scholarly interest. The fact is that some cultures have better values and ethics than others. The performance statements do not necessarily reflect a multicultural mindset, but appropriate caution should be exercised in teaching this standard.

*Students learn to recognize that media sources (television, films, news reports, travel brochures) may not give a true picture of places and regions. Other sources (personal travel, information from friends and family, museums) may help to give one a more accurate picture. The basic objective is to help students develop informed perceptions about other places and regions, and this is good. Active learning is always preferable, and we must engage students in the discussion by making the process of place and region definition personal.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT 3: Physical Systems

This element contains two standards focusing on physical geography that overlaps with meteorology, geology, ecology/biology and, ultimately, environmental science.

Standard 7: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface.

*This section is essentially an introduction to certain aspects of Earth science or geology. Students learn about the four physical systems: the atmosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere. Students study the physical processes that create change on the Earth: movement of tectonic plates, water and wind erosion, deposition, glaciation, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and weather phenomena.

*This section also touches on the subject of climate change: “Global climate change is a public policy issue that must be addressed by governments, resulting in actions that determine the health, safety, and economic well-being of people across the world. Reasoned and responsible political decisions must derive from a clear understanding of the interactions among Earth’s physical systems, as well as the processes creating them.” Some examples of climate change in this section involve natural phenomena (e.g., connections between ocean circulation and climate, connections between vegetation and climate, and variation in climate over long historic periods of time).

*A couple of standards in this section appear to relate to anthropogenic climate change. One standard calls for the student to “explain how increasing surface temperatures result in melting ice sheets and rising sea levels.” This could and should be interpreted in a wider context; i.e., sea levels have risen over the last 20,000 years since the demise of the last Ice Age, with a decided increase in global temperatures over that period. However, it will most likely be interpreted to describe why anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide lead to increases in global air temperature which, in turn, cause ice to melt and the sea level to rise. Similarly, the requirement that students “explain how changes in sea coral (including current observations and fossil records) are due to sea level rise or fall as a result of climate variability” has anthropogenic climate change undertones.

Standard 8: The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems and biomes on Earth’s surface.

*This standard focuses on biogeography, a subset of physical geography associated with the biosphere, and how it relates with ecosystems and ecology. An ecosystem is a community of organisms together with their physical environment, viewed as a system with interacting and interdependent relationships. A biome is “a large region of ecosystems with similar climate and vegetation characteristics.” As with Standard 7, this standard requires basic understanding of processes at the fourth and eighth grade levels but touches on anthropogenic climate change at the twelfth grade level.

*Students study various components of ecosystems (biomass, climate, and soil), the physical processes that influence ecosystems (e.g., changing temperature, weather-related phenomena, tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, glacial movements, and forest fires), the flow of energy, the cycling of matter, the water and carbon cycles, and food chains/webs.

*The standard calls for the student to be able to “explain how global climate change could influence the location and extent of existing ecosystems and the formation of new ones” and to “explain how rising global temperatures can cause changes in various biomes (e.g., melting permafrost in tundra, changes in the location of deserts, increases in the length of growing seasons).” Both items presuppose anthropogenic climate change and do not suggest an unbiased discussion of the uncertainties associated with these events.

*Standards 7 and 8 are the perfect location to discuss the anthropogenic climate change debate. However, the introduction to Standard 8 asserts: “Knowing how ecosystems and biomes function will enable students to make informed decisions about the sustainable uses of the natural world in the future. Global climate change is a reality with the potential of inflicting unimagined outcomes on the planet. The degree to which present and future generations understand the critical role they must play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and biomes will determine, in large measure, the quality of human life on Earth.” Anthropogenic climate change is taken as fact, and the suggestion is that students must understand these processes to make a “sustainable” planet. Why air temperatures or sea levels should rise is not debated or discussed; it is simply taken as a fact from which their impacts are suggested. Indeed, no defense is given for these assertions – the students are expected to just accept them as true.

*The section covers additional material on climate change, including “how rising global temperatures can cause changes in various biomes” and “how global climate change could influence the location and extent of existing ecosystems and the formation of new ones.” The standards view climate change as a serious matter, and there appears to be no balance in the presentation. Continuing anthropogenic global warming is assumed, and disastrous outcomes are projected.


This element contains five standards that focus on human systems – population, culture, economics, distribution, and human interactions.

Standard 9: The characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface.
* This standard represents the distribution and migration patterns of human settlements and is often called population geography. One theme is the factors affecting where people are located and why people tend to settle in particular places. Some of these factors are economic opportunities (jobs), desirable climate, ethnic or cultural considerations, the infrastructure of an area, and a tendency towards urbanization.
*Another theme is demographics, including age distributions, birth and death rates, and prediction of population trends. Two performance statements discuss national policies on controlling immigration and limiting population growth. These discussions could involve moral and ethical issues, but no particular bias is indicated in the standards.
*This section also deals with migration of human populations. Most of the focus is on involuntary moves for various causes (e.g., refugees from war or famine, victims of religious or other persecution, people forced to relocate such as slaves or Native Americans). Students are asked to “explain the positive and negative consequences of the migration of large numbers of people in a country.” Some of the performance statements deal with political issues such as immigration policies, trans-border forced migrations, or diaspora. There is no indication of political bias in these instances, but teachers would need to be sensitive to fairness and objectivity.

Standard 10. The characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth’s cultural mosaics.

*This standard represents the distribution and diffusion patterns of human cultural characteristics, which is often referred to as cultural geography. Culture is defined as “a complex, multifaceted concept encompassing social structures, languages, belief systems, institutions, technology, art, architecture, dress, foods, and traditions of groups of humans.” The main thrust of this section is that cultures are in a constant state of flux in the modern world. “As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent, cultural groups have greater and more varied contacts with each other.... The processes of cultural change accelerate with improvements in transportation and communication.”

*This section seems to treat all cultures as equals and assumes that cultural diffusion is purely spatial (i.e., cultures migrate). A key theme is that students need “to recognize and respect other cultures that may be different from their own.” This is a worthy objective, but it does not mean that all cultures should be viewed with equal respect and validity. The fact is that some cultures have better values and ethics than others. This standard focuses on understanding diverse cultures, but it leaves unanswered any questions about the moral and ethical validities of specific cultural practices. For example, there are performance statements that ask students to explain (1) the Indian caste system, (2) the roles of women in different societies, and (3) differing business practices. The moral/ethical aspects of these social structures are not addressed, however, and this is a serious omission.

*Another theme is cultural separation or “divergence.” Unfortunately, the emphasis is clearly on immigrants retaining their cultural practices when moving to a new location, rather than assimilating into the new culture. For instance, students are asked to identify “examples of immigrant cultural groups maintaining language or other cultural markers in a new location to distinguish themselves from other groups.” Students are also asked to “explain how subculture groups in the United States adopt dress or other characteristics to distinguish themselves from other groups.” A performance statement is needed that addresses the desirability and advantages of adaptation and assimilation into a new culture.

Standard 11: The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface.

*This section deals with economic geography; it addresses global economic, transportation, and communication systems. Students study such topics as types of jobs, manufacture of products, distribution and use of natural resources, trade routes and transportation networks, speed of communication and the Internet, and the role of capitalism.

*Unfortunately, this standard does not provide for an unbiased discussion of economic systems and how they interrelate with other systems. While the focus of geography is clearly the spatial context of these systems, the interactions between capitalist and socialist economies are seemingly missed. For example, how are free-market economies in Hong Kong and Macau affected by their assimilation into the communist Chinese mainland? Also, how will a reopening of relations between Cuba and the United States affect the way their disparate economic systems interact?

*One performance statement that is bothersome involves free trade: “Analyze the importance of location and geographic distribution in relation to the advantage for countries that belong to the European Union (EU), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)....” The statement goes on to list some advantages, but nothing is said about disadvantages! Free trade agreements can be useful, but they can also be harmful; for example, loss of jobs within a region or country, reduction of a nation’s control over trade decisions, removal of protective tariffs, reduced control over movements of goods and people across borders, and possible devaluation of currency. Both advantages and disadvantages should be discussed for objectivity. An unbiased treatment of fair trade principles is warranted.

Standard 12: The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement.

*This section analyzes human settlement patterns on the basis of their “size, composition, location, arrangement, organization, function, and history.” Standard 12 overlaps to some extent with Standard 9, except that Standard 12 deals more with land use and land use change. The performance statements focus a lot on cities, since most people live in urban areas and cities are growing rapidly worldwide. The performance statements seem reasonable and objective.

Standard 13: How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth’s surface.

*The theme here is stated as follows: “Competing for control of areas of Earth’s surface, large and small, is a universal trait among societies and has resulted in both productive cooperation and destructive conflict between groups” and “the processes of seeking to control parts of Earth’s surface continues unabated at all scales of human activity.” This topic naturally generates controversy.

*The United Nations is named in three performance statements. One of these states: “Evaluate the success of United Nations (UN) agencies in dealing with global issues....” The UN has both positive and negative effects on world affairs, and both successes and failures should be covered in an objective manner. The statement would be better if reworded: “Evaluate the success and failure....”

*Another performance statement reads: “Analyze and explain the impacts of regional alliances intended for political, military, cultural, or economic control....” The EU, UN, and NAFTA are listed as examples. While the statement is written in a neutral manner, teachers should strive to cover both positive and negative effects of such alliances.

*The most controversial performance statement in the section is this one: “Identify and describe the potential results of recommendations generated by international efforts to address global climate change (e.g., the series of agreements at Montreal, Kyoto, and Copenhagen).” The agreements listed all recommend drastic reductions in “carbon footprints” (particularly emissions of carbon dioxide) around the world. The assumption is that human-induced global warming is a serious and increasing threat to the planet’s well-being. The standard presupposes the negative effects of anthropogenic climate change. While there is evidence that global temperatures may be slowly rising, the causes and future effects of “climate change” are still being debated. Students should be made aware that there is widespread debate among climate scientists over (a) the extent to which greenhouse gases (GHG) contribute to changes in global temperature, (b) the degree of climate sensitivity to atmospheric carbon dioxide, (c) whether the consequences of GHG warming will be net beneficial or net harmful, and (d) whether the benefits of any attempts to reduce GHG emissions would be worth the costs. The performance statement as written does not provide a balanced perspective.

*Global warming is defined in the Geography for Life Glossary as “an increase in Earth’s average temperature in recent decades due to the buildup of certain gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, that are released by human activities.” This definition is misleading, since there are numerous causes for changes in the Earth’s average surface temperature. First, the major cause is cyclic change in solar output over time. Volcanic eruptions and meteorite impacts also play a role. Second, global warming/cooling is not just a recent phenomenon. Geological studies have revealed numerous warming and cooling periods throughout Earth’s history. Third, human activities are not the largest sources of carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide is exhaled by animals and is released by various geological processes. Methane is expelled as an intestinal gas by many animals, it is released from underground hydrocarbon sources, and it is highly abundant on ocean floors in the form of methane clathrates.

*A major thrust of climate change activists is a shift from “nonrenewable” energy sources to “renewable” ones (with fewer emissions). Yet there is no discussion of how this would increase the costs of energy and affect economies worldwide. For example, why not discuss the economic and social impact on the poor, the concomitant environmental degradation due to cooking with dung and wood, and the loss of freedom due to decreased transportation and communication? The implicit assumption is that cooperation in the development of energy sources is always for the general good; history has indicated that it does not always result in positive outcomes. Cooperation in the area of global climate change mitigation strategies may also not produce the desired positive outcomes.

*A discussion of human systems is fraught with conflicting views. It is imperative that any such study of these systems be cognizant of the differences between peoples and cultures, and among people with different political and economic outlooks. Where most guidelines (including these) fail is in their inability to recognize these disparate views and to provide both an objective treatment of multiple sides of the issue and to be tolerant of opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately, the authors have not adequately provided for this inclusive instruction to be incorporated into the classroom. One wonders if Geography for Life is intentionally setting an agenda that goes beyond geographic literacy.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT 5: Environment and Society

This element contains three standards that focus on human interaction with the environment.

Standard 14: How human actions modify the physical environment.

*The overview to this standard states “contrast the benign long-term consequences of terracing hillsides to grow rice for food with the dramatic depletion of Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming since the Industrial Revolution.” The assertion is that Arctic sea ice depletion is due to anthropogenic forces caused by fossil fuel usage. No mention is made of the increase in Antarctic sea ice or other, non-technological causes for climate change. Indeed, the implication in this standard is that recent climate change is driven solely by anthropogenic increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide and methane.

*Everyone agrees that humans make numerous modifications to the physical environment. Students are taught that: “Some of these modifications are intended and positive; others unintended and negative.... Students must understand the consequences their actions have on the physical environment and make informed, sustainable choices.” Sustainability is a word that must be used with caution. The general idea of protecting the environment and conserving natural resources is not controversial. However, “sustainability” has become a political movement that emphasizes simpler lifestyles, reduced economic development, global redistribution of wealth, limited use of natural resources in developed countries, “green” (renewable) energy, “smart growth” policies, human population control, and global governance. In short, sustainability is more a term of ideology than of science; it is a word that needs to be defined and used carefully. The Glossary in Geography for Life defines sustainability as “the integration of physical systems with human patterns of activity to assure continuity.” This sounds straightforward enough, but it does not include the political aspects mentioned above. The standards make no attempt to explain the diverse aspects of sustainability.

*The subject of “environment and society” is charged with emotion and controversy, and instruction must be handled objectively and fairly. Some performance statements are well written to encourage an objective viewpoint on environmental matters. For example: (a) “Evaluate various types of contemporary agricultural techniques ... and compare the positive and negative implications of using these techniques.” (b) “Compare the costs and benefits of alternative solutions for a human-caused environmental problem....” (c) “Evaluate the feasibility, costs and benefits of green construction techniques....”

*To its credit, Standard 14 references several positive impacts of humans on the environment; for example, flood control, water availability, energy-saving construction techniques, wetland and forest restoration, open space protection, development of new energy sources, no-till farming, and crop rotation. One performance statement asks students to: “Analyze the ways humans can have positive effects on the physical environment....” On the other hand, there are more examples of negative impacts as compared to positive ones. Some of these negatives are soil erosion, siltation, deforestation, desertification, flooding, aerosols (smog and dust), exhaust emissions, acid rain, air/water pollution, herbicide/pesticide residues, spread of disease, lead paint, and nuclear waste. There needs to be more emphasis on balancing the pluses and minuses.

*The overall tone of this standard is that, except for green methods, technology (particularly advanced technology) has been bad for life on our planet. The twelfth grade requirements identify acid rain (from the 1970s) and the urban heat island as undesirable results from technology that can be alleviated by employing coal with lower sulfur content, scrubbers on smokestacks, alternative energies, green roof construction, increased public transportation, and energy efficient buildings. The only down side is their cost. Indeed, another requirement specifically requires the educated student to “evaluate the feasibility, costs, and benefits of green construction techniques (e.g., Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] certification) and describe how these efforts may increase sustainability and mitigate human impact on the physical environment.”

*It is never admitted by the radical environmental agenda that most proclamations of doom and gloom are grossly overstated. The requirement to “construct a plan for a public-awareness campaign about a hazardous issue including suggestions for mitigation and adaptation” will only encourage students to make overstatements as to the consequences of human activities and the benefits that green mitigation policies will provide. There are (at least) two sides to every story, and Geography for Life tends to emphasize the activist environmental viewpoint.

*The overall assumption in this standard is that many processes only have anthropogenic origins. No admission is made that certain negative impacts occur naturally and may not always have a human cause. For example, erosion of landforms is a natural process that shapes our landscapes. Barrier islands are shaped by the forces of the tides and storms which frequent the coast. The Atchafalaya River, if left to its own natural processes, would eventually stream capture the Mississippi River, resulting in the construction of a new spit within the Gulf of Mexico.

Standard 15: How physical systems affect human systems.

*This section discusses the factors involved in choosing to live in different locations, i.e., how environment impacts human activities. “To live in any physical environment, no matter how accommodating or how challenging, people must develop ways to take advantage of its opportunities and minimize its risks. If the incentives are great enough, people can adapt to the harshest environments, often regardless of cost or risk.”

*Most of the performance statements are sensible and practical. Students learn how different locations may influence such areas as human activity (recreation, employment, lifestyle), farming methods, modes of transportation, and building design.

*Several performance statements are concerned with the risk of natural disasters. Regions in the world are identified where disasters are most likely to occur (e.g., earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, wind, flooding, and wildfires). Students are encouraged to think about disaster preparedness: “Construct a list of environmental hazards and compare and contrast how people in developed and developing world regions prepare for and cope with the aftermath of these disasters.”

*A twelfth grade standard is the most controversial: “Explain how environmental hazards affect human systems and why people may have different ways of reacting to them, as exemplified by being able to … compare the human responses to the potential predicted effects of climate change on different regions of Earth (e.g., people living in coastal versus landlocked areas, high- versus low-latitude areas, Northern versus Southern Hemisphere areas).” This item is predicated on the belief that climate change, either natural or anthropogenic, likely will be detrimental and will adversely affect coastal areas, high latitudes, and the Northern Hemisphere.

Standard 16: The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

*This section gives students a rather heavy dose of environmental activism. It paints a picture of diminishing resources, increasing global consumption, potential ecological disaster, and the “sustainability” mantra. Standard 16 asks the question: “In the absence of regulation and prudent public policy, can our present industry-based and consumer-oriented lifestyle continue without causing irreversible ecological damage and perhaps even ecological collapse?” While there are several well-structured, objective performance statements in this section, the overall message is pessimistic with regard to the Earth’s future. In short, Standard 16 lacks balance!

*A resource is defined as “any physical material constituting part of Earth that people need and value.” Resources are classified as “renewable, nonrenewable, or flow.” A main emphasis is stated in this performance statement: “... identify renewable and flow resources that could be used instead of nonrenewable resources.” A renewable resource is defined here as one that keeps the environment intact when it is replenished. However, wind and solar – which are traditionally thought of as “renewable” – are defined in the standards as flow resources (that are neither renewable nor nonrenewable). This raises the question of what is really meant here by a “renewable resource.” The discussion also excludes the fact that components of the energy extraction process may be non-renewable (e.g., rare-earth minerals used in solar panels and wind turbines). Indeed, a discussion of resources does not presuppose that energy is the dominant resource.

*A good feature of this section is an emphasis on recycling and reusing: “Identify the advantages and disadvantages of recycling and reusing materials made from resources that people value.” Recycling and reusing are practical ways in which students can get involved in the conservation of resources.

*A key performance statement is this one: “Compare the advantages and disadvantages of using alternative energy sources (e.g., electricity generated from coal fire, diesel turbines, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal heat, methane gas from landfills or animal waste) and then rank them based on criteria such as availability, sustainability, pollution, and expense.” Overall this is a good performance statement, and it could be a useful learning opportunity when presented objectively. The following points should not be overlooked: (1) fossil fuels will continue to be the major global energy source for the foreseeable future; (2) renewable and flow resources are minor energy producers at the present time, although their use will certainly grow over time; (3) cost is the main factor in determining what energy sources are used now and in the future; and (4) we can expect human ingenuity to develop new or improved energy sources to meet future needs.

*Nuclear energy (fission and fusion) has the potential to become our major energy source in the future. With continuing development, this source can be inexhaustible, emissions-free, safe, and inexpensive. Unfortunately, only one performance statement (quoted above) mentions nuclear energy, and this is listed as only one of many energy sources. Standard 16 should have a more explicit focus on the advantages and potential of nuclear energy.

*One performance statement focuses on “green” sources for materials: “Explain how petroleum-based consumer products can be replaced by renewable resources (e.g., plastic bags, eating utensils, diapers replaced by corn- or bamboo-based materials).” Today petroleum-based materials dominate the market. Students should know that bio-based feedstocks are a niche industry at present, hampered by higher costs, technology deficits, and limited availability. Bio-based sources will obviously become more economically feasible over time.

*Sustainability was mentioned earlier under Standard 14, and the discussion there also applies to this section. We reiterate the fact that this word has different connotations and must be used carefully. Sustainability is listed in five performance statements under Standard 16, in the contexts of sustainable methodology (in farming, forestry, and fishing), energy production, and public policy. The use of the word is not particularly objectionable in any of these contexts, but students should realize that “sustainability” has become a key rallying point for Agenda 21, the “green” movement, and environmental activism. In contrast, the word stewardship (the responsible overseeing and protection of the Earth) is not used in Standard 16. A steward is someone who is a surrogate for another (in this case, we are stewards of God’s Earth). The concept of “stewardship” is more satisfying than that of “sustainability”; it’s too bad the writers of the geography standards don’t use the term.

*This standard states that students “must recognize that maintaining renewable resources at a sustainable level is a local and global responsibility.” Standard 16 exhibits strong environmental activism, and the overall tone is that without a high degree of governmental regulation, our capitalist society is doomed to destroy the environment. Recycling, alternative energy, and green solutions are posited as both good and necessary to avoid this ecological collapse.

*Two performance statements call upon students to compare developed and developing countries: (1) “Explain how and why per-capita consumption of resources ... differs between developed and developing countries now and in the past.” (2) “Compare government policies and programs to promote sustainability ... in developed and developing countries.” The indication here is that the developed world uses far more resources and has more environmental degradation than underdeveloped or lesser developed countries. A more balanced view would be to demonstrate that affordable energy has allowed the developed world to have a greatly enhanced lifestyle with less environmental impact. If one has electricity to make the mundane chores more efficient, people have more time to develop all aspects of life. Life expectancy is low in the undeveloped world because the lack of affordable energy does not allow the people to enhance sanitation, food quality and quantity, and medical developments.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT 6: The Uses of Geography

This element contains two standards that focus on the uses of geography – past, present, and the future. Specifically, this element is designed to link geography and history.

Standard 17: How to apply geography to interpret the past.

*This section explores how geography has shaped history: “There is a significant inherent link between the two disciplines.” The performance statements describe a number of interesting connections, most of which are uncontroversial (e.g., changes in state boundaries over time, westward expansion in the U.S., spatial organization of cities, migrations of people groups, infrastructure changes over time, and perceptual shifts as a result of nautical explorations).

*As with other standards, Standard 17 assumes humans have had a largely adverse impact on our environment. For example, the fourth grade requirements note that a successful student is able to “describe how people’s perception of the environment changed over time from limitless exploitation to sustainability (e.g., pollution of rivers during industrialization, pollution of air or scarring of land from mining, depletion of American bison from overhunting).” The suggestion is that we have only recently become aware of our environment as we moved from exploitation (i.e., willful and wanton environmental degradation) to green policies. No mention is made that industrialization and the availability of inexpensive energy have given us both the time and ability to become better stewards of our environment.

*One performance statement reads: “Describe how the physical environment of a country or state was changed by processes of forest clearing, damming of rivers, cultivation of fields, or land leveling.” While the performance statement seems neutral, the connotation seems to be that altering the physical environment to suit man’s needs is not desirable. In most cases of landform alteration, the benefits to man have outweighed the negative factors.

*Two performance statements relate to exploitation and colonization. Students compare “native American original settlement areas and the current tribal reservations in the United States.” Students analyze “the restructuring of Africa by explaining how colonial-era boundaries were imposed on preexisting cultural geographies....” Indeed these are unfortunate examples of superior forces being used to control or alter native societies. Other examples could be given in which resettlement or border changes benefited the native populations.

*A fourth grade standard states that “reports and maps of early nautical explorers changed people’s perceptions of the world.” This includes that statement that explorers proved “the world was not flat.” Few civilizations ever believed that the Earth was flat – this is a common misperception that the ancients were not very intelligent about the planet. Indeed, they recognized that other astronomical objects (such as the Sun, the Moon, and other planets) were spherical, that ships sailed away by falling into the horizon (due to the curvature of the Earth), and that a lunar eclipse was the projection of the Earth’s shadow onto the surface of the Moon.

*It is not until the twelfth grade requirements that technology is presented in a positive light: “Analyze how technological changes in infrastructure have affected human activities in places, regions, and environments over time (e.g., the effects of processes of technological change, particularly suburbanization, through creation of an interstate highway system, development of the railroad spurring migration and influencing changes in land-use patterns with access to markets).” Indeed, this may be the only place where technology is shown in a potentially positive light.

Standard 18: How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future.

*This final section informs students “that actions they take, both as individuals and collectively, can help to shape the future in both positive and negative ways.” The key message is that students need to become environmental activists to save the world through sustainability.

*One-third of the performance statements (11 of 33) directly deal with environmental issues. The topics are familiar ones that are covered elsewhere in the standards (e.g., water and air quality, resource consumption, population growth, increasing traffic, economic development, nuclear waste storage, environmental alteration, loss of green space, green energy policy, global control of emissions, and global warming). It is certainly appropriate for students to consider these issues, but the standards lack a balanced and objective coverage.

*An eighth grade standard requires students to “identify environmental issues in a region and describe the consequences of these issues on the region and the appearance of the environment in the next 30 years if no action is taken, limited action is taken, or with considerable intervention.” While this could be discussed in an unbiased setting, it seems more likely that activist environmental solutions are intended.

*Some of the performance statements deal with topics that are mostly political, rather than geographical, in nature (e.g., boundary disputes, nationalistic movements, immigration and refugee policies, world trade patterns, communications technology, securing the southern U.S. border, mitigation of high-crime areas, and response to a global health pandemic). While these topics fall under the category of “social studies,” it is questionable whether they belong in geography standards.

National Civics and Government Standards
National Economics Standards
National Geography Standards
National History Standards
National Social Studies Standards