By Shannon McElvaney, Esri GeoDesign Evangelist, Redlands, California
Shannon exploring the ancient city of Petra, Jordan.
Geographers - The New Explorers

I always wanted to be an explorer, to set off into the unknown and find new cultures, new plants, and new animals; to document the unknown, map new territories, and study new creatures, people, and places to understand how they work, how they came to be, and what impact each had on each other’s development.
People like Charles DarwinAlexander von Humboldt, and Alfred Russel Wallace did that. They were early naturalists who had a passion for discovery; broad generalists who knew a little about a lot, but who questioned everything, thought deeply, and looked for patterns. They were basically systems thinkers, curious about the interdependencies of all things, keen observers of the natural world who would ask the question, “why?”

In a broader sense, they were geographers. Their work influenced me to take classes in botany, zoology, oceanography, physics, chemistry, culture, natural resource management, ecology, comparative religion, world civilizations, political science, and the like, trying to gain a general understanding of the complexity of the world so I might help to solve some of the big problems. They are the reason I became a geographer.  

Geography is Understanding

Without an understanding of ecology, population dynamics, and genetics, it’s hard to understand why biodiversity is so important. Without an understanding of nutrient cycling, it is hard to understand the impact that too much carbon or too much nitrogen has on the air we breathe and the water we drink. And without an understanding of global economics and politics, it is hard to understand the impact that policy has on our daily lives and on the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

These early systems thinkers looked at their present situation, then cast their minds back in time to hypothesize how the present came to be, and then stepped through a huge number of possible scenarios to get there. For Darwin, this was the extreme variety of bird species on the Galapagos, all decedent from one species of finch, which resulted in the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. For Wallace, it was the apparent differences between animals in Asia and Australia that lead to the Wallace Line, further advancing the theories of evolution, biogeography, and plate tectonics. Both these ideas took great vision and creative thought.

This brings me to the concept of geodesign. Geodesign encapsulates the essence of what these early naturalists and explorers were all about, but with a twist. On a very large scale, we are trying to understand what consequences our individual actions will have on each other and the planet in the future.

Given advances in science over the years, we have a pretty good idea of how the physical world works. AS a geographer, what drives me today is my concern for what the future may hold given population growth, resource depletion, urbanization, and so forth. That is the role of a new breed of explorers, those engaged in applying geodesign techniques to investigate the impacts that design decisions made in the present will have on future generations. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of geodesign is that it lets us test different designs by simulating the impacts they might have on the future without having to be a time traveler.

What if we put a pair of rabbits on a grassy island with no predators? We know the answer to that already. The Romans had this problem in the Mediterranean. A population explosion occured, resources were destroyed, and native species were obliterated. What if we did the same with horses in Australia? Same result. And what if we did it with brown tree snakes on Guam? No more birds. 

What if we did it with people on an island called Earth? That’s something that we, the new explorers, need to figure out.


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