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No one is an island. The community where you live, the food you eat, and the people you know are all part of a global chain of connections. Humans have transformed the planet over the past 10,000 years, and today, thanks to our transportation infrastructure, telecommunications, and a restless economy, the pace of globalization is accelerating. It is more important than ever to understand this chain of connections in order to tackle some of the biggest questions about human life on earth:

  • Is our current population growth sustainable?
  • How will we adapt to the changing climate?
  • Why are some nations rich and others poor?
  • What does globalization mean for local cultures?
  • What is the relationship between geography and the nation-state?

Tackle these questions and more in Understanding Cultural and Human Geography, a groundbreaking course that surveys the geographical context for human activity. Over the course of 24 eye-opening lectures, Professor Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin–Madison takes you on an interdisciplinary voyage across time and around the world to consider the dual nature of our relationship with “place.” You’ll see how our environment influences human life, and you’ll consider the way human life, in turn, influences the environment.

If you took a high school geography course, you likely spent your time memorizing countries and capitals, oceans and continents, rivers and mountain ranges. This is “descriptive geography,” a straightforward catalog of what the world looks like. But the field of geography is much more complex, much more dynamic, and much more human than a course emphasizing memorization would have you believe.

Understanding Cultural and Human Geography shows you the full range of the geographer’s purview. Beyond simple description, this course reveals the underlying structures that explain why the world is the way it is. You’ll see that geography is truly interdisciplinary, covering such a broad range of fields as:

  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology
  • History
  • Cultural Studies
  • Economics
  • Geopolitics

Professor Robbins introduces you to each of these discrete fields and the connections between them, so you come away with a comprehensive understanding of human activity on earth. Understanding global trends and connections—from environmental changes such as deforestation to the way money and labor slosh around the globe—will give you new insights into the story of human civilization and current events.

Study the Relationship Between Humans and the Environment

One key theme of this course is that “place” is a construct. People make (and constantly re-make) places in response to myriad circumstances, ranging from economic conditions to changes in the ecology around them. Indeed, humans have taken over the earth so completely that some geologists now refer to our era as the Anthropocene—the “human era.” But is this a good thing?

After introducing the concepts of “place” and “region,” Professor Robbins examines the many ways humans have affected—or been affected by—the environment. For example:

  • Human have transformed the land through deforestation and the building of roads and cities.
  • Thanks to a growing population, we have harvested much of the biosphere for commercial farming and energy production.
  • International travel and transportation has led to the spread of disease and introduced invasive species to new lands.
  • Pollutants from the Industrial Revolution have altered our climate.

While it is tempting to despair over humanity’s takeover of the planet, Professor Robbins shows how the picture is complex, and that there is reason for optimism. Much of the human impact on the earth is not an inexorable march of destruction without any means of revitalization. In the case of deforestation, for instance, trends such as urbanization combined with governmental policies and the boom in forest industries suggest forests won’t be going extinct any time soon.

Immerse Yourself in the Global Economy

In addition to the study of particular environments, cultural geography seeks to find connections around the world. For instance, what does the outbreak of disease in one location have to do with the global price of gold? What does the international agriculture system have to do with the suburban American lawn? Why are Chinese investors buying land in Africa?

From India to Istanbul to the American Midwest, Professor Robbins takes you on an exciting journey across disciplines to show you the effects of the “great acceleration”—the rapid pace of globalization and cultural change. In this journey, you will:

  • look at the structure of our economic system, from the capture and processing of raw materials to commercial sales and data management;
  • see how the Columbian Exchange changed the world economy after 1492;
  • review the geography of wealth and poverty, including indices for measuring standard of living;
  • consider how our modern transportation system nullified the barriers of distance, as well as the effects this development had on labor and migration; and
  • unpack the trend toward urbanization and reflect on what this trend means for the future.

Beyond examining the financial impact of the “great acceleration,” you’ll discover the cultural implications of a world economy. For example, as cultures become more and more homogenized, thousands of languages are disappearing. Professor Robbins explores the wellspring of culture and delves into the complex relationship between culture and place.

Consider the Political Implications of Geography

The course ends with a unit on geopolitics, the study of geography and political power. You’ll visit several hotbeds of geopolitical activity—including Afghanistan, Ukraine, North Korea, India and Pakistan, and the Balkans—to explore the thorny issues of geography, ethnicity, and statehood.

You’ll also study several geopolitical theories, including Great Britain’s 19th-century “heartland theory” of international dominance and the United States’ Domino Theory of communism in Southeast Asia. Finally, you’ll look at the relationship between economics and geopolitics in the context of international agreements such as the European Union, as well as the pros and cons of international governance.

Think Like a Geographer

If you open any newspaper, the headlines demonstrate the world is always changing. The beauty of Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is that Professor Robbins provides you a methodology for understanding human life on earth. Whether thinking about environmental policies, cultural homogenization, economic circumstances, or geopolitical tension, there are no easy answers.

Beyond the excitement of traveling the globe, geography is an active field—a field that has the potential to completely change the way you view the world. You’ll learn to trace a chain of explanations from an event on one side of the earth to a seemingly unrelated cause on the other side. When you complete this course, you’ll have all the tools you need to look beyond the headlines and analyze world events in a whole new way.

Visit Understanding Cultural and Human Geography (The Great Courses) to read more...

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